Thursday, August 28, 2008
BEER 101, or, How To Be Your Own Beer Connoisseur
In our culture, the word beer comes loaded with a lot of connotations. Some may think of the 'usual' suspects. You know, the big names that advertise on TV during the games. But the history and breadth of beer goes back a very long time. In fact, the history of beer can be traced back as far as 6000 years. It's been a vital part of advanced civilizations on every continent on Earth, from the ancient Egyptians to the present day, with no sign of letting up. It's a multi-billion dollar business, and an endless source of enjoyment for millions. But there's more than meets the eye (or taste buds).
If you don't know your weisse from Budweiser, it's my honor to bring you this beer primer. Basically, beer can be broken down into two types - the ales and the lagers. What's the difference, you ask? Well, they are subtle, but actually quite distinctive. Both can have a wide array of tastes and colors, from slightly golden to deep black. And both can be found on the beer lists at most restaurants. The difference lies chiefly in fermentation, as yeast is used to break down sugars during the brewing process. Ales are top-fermented, meaning the yeast rises to the top of the beer while fermenting. Lagers are bottom-fermented, so the yeast settles to the bottom while brewing. What does all this mean, though?
We'll start with the ales. These top-floating yeast strains require warmer temperatures to interact with the sugars, and these beers are subsequently better to drink at slightly warmer temperatures. Ales typically are a bit stronger, and often more complex in flavor than most lagers. A good ale can come in a variety of styles, and a beer beginner is sure to find something to love among these distinctive styles.
Pale ales are usually marked by an abundance of hops (which are a type of flower used in the process that gives beer a distinctive bitterness, acidity, and floral aroma). Pale ales can be considered 'sour' to those who aren't familiar with the flavor. Golden ales are a little lighter in taste, as a rule, and easier on the palate. Red and brown ales are medium-bodied, and may appeal to the average drinker a little better than pales, due to their more balanced taste and a combination of sweetness and bitterness. Brown ales can have more of a caramel or slightly chocolate-type of taste, and are also medium-bodied, while porters are often nearly black in color, and can be known for more chocolate or coffee-like tastes (due to dark malts used in the brew process) and heavier disposition (so they won't be ideal for those watching their waistlines or dieting). A close cousin to the porters are the similarly-blackened stouts, which are even heavier, and sometimes more hoppy/bitter and burnt in taste than their other ale brethren. These coffee-or-chocolate-toned beers are often very opaque in color, and can be tough on beginners, so it's wiser to build up to this type of beer. In short, ales are heavier in nature, and best-suited for drinking at warmer temperatures. Ales can be especially delicious on cooler evenings, or with spicier foods. The wide array of ales out there (each with different spices and flavor dispositions) can be tricky to place alongside meals, but keep in mind that the weight and richness of these ales will be best paired with lighter fare, so if you're going all buffet-style, it's probably best to keep it light. As a general rule, the darker the beer, the richer the taste. It's not a guarantee, but for any beginner, it's a fairly safe starting point.
By contrast, lagers are the lighter, more transparent of the beer family. Lagers go better with warmer weather (especially as they are meant to be consumed at colder temperatures). They are less filling than their ale cousins, and often contain less alcohol. Most of the popular American beers are lagers, so just about all of us begin our beer journeys with this brewing style. Within the lager family, there are also a number of stylistic distinctions, many of which serve to confuse and bewilder beer novices, but here's a quick breakdown. Bocks are stronger and darker than most lagers, and can be heavier and more alcoholic. Pilseners are lighter in color (sometimes quite transparent and pale), and with more of a hoppy bitterness. Most mainstream lagers are patterned after the old European pilsener style. There are lots of other variations on these themes, but in general, you would probably enjoy the lighter lagers in Summertime, or while eating heavier foods, since these will tend to sit lighter in the stomach. For example, bar food is notoriously heavy, thus, lagers are a good bet to go with those burgers or onion rings.
So, in reality, beers can be enjoyed much like wines - tasty treats to accompany and accent your meals. It may take you some trial-and-error attempts as far as food pairings go, but with some patience (and taste buds willing), you will be on your way to being your own beer connoisseur, and ready to branch out beyond the 'regular'. There's a wealth of fine beers out there, many hard to find and obscure, and from all over the world. Plenty of restaurants and liquor establishments locally serve a vast array of names, styles, and flavors, so there's always something new and exciting to try. But don't just listen to me - please your own palate! Prost!